Construction Literary Magazine

March 2019: Conflict & Displacement

Focus Group

Focus Group

Photograph via Flickr by Frode Bang

The one in the manga t-shirt was a problem. The other girls were as mainstream as it gets: Juicy sweats, Ugg boots, ponytails. But when the guy from the screening company picked them out the other day, he’d asked them each to bring a friend. And apparently one of them was friends with this witchy alterna-teen, her eyes as big and round, her hair as black and choppy, as the character on her shirt.

No doubt about it, the girl was an outlier. The easiest thing to do would be to throw out her answers altogether. And if the assignment had been to market test a particular product—last time, it was chewing gum that doubled as a facial cleanser—Lauren would’ve done just that. But this was a more open-ended session. Gather together a group of typical young women, age fourteen to seventeen, and find out what’s on their minds. What concerns them? What are they into? What are they looking for in a beauty line?

Lauren went into spin mode. She could present Manga Girl to the client as representative of an untapped market segment, edgier, less susceptible to the usual campaigns. Punks, goths, skaters, emos—she’d come up with a catchy umbrella term like Willful Outsiders—they have skin, too, right? And if this specimen’s ashen pallor was a general trait—and Lauren guessed it was—they could use the help of a certain popular skin care brand. But how to get them to accept a product, or line of products, they would consider a sign of shallowness, inauthenticity, and all-around lameness? What would make them want to take care of their skin?

That’s where Lauren came in. Clients requested her by name because, at the age of thirty-three, she already had a reputation for spinning the dross of focus group responses—attractions and aversions the participants could barely articulate let alone understand—into advertising gold: slogans, visuals, the right celebrity endorser. It was easy for her, maybe too easy. Stay present, she told herself. Let the girl speak before you decide what box to put her in.

But of course the girl didn’t speak. Oh, she said her name (Gwen) and age (sixteen) when her turn came. And she ordered her lunch readily enough—buffalo wings, Lauren noted. All the others were having salads—dressing on the side—off the 550 Calories or Less menu. So she wasn’t exactly shy or scared of what the group would think of her. Nonetheless, she kept to herself, silently taking in the scene while the rest nattered on about how weird this was and how their parents thought they were lying about what they were doing today. Did Lauren detect a glint of irony in those giant, appraising eyes? Was ordering the wings a statement? Or maybe a joke? The answers to those burning questions would have to wait. It was time to start.

“So,” Lauren said, setting her mini-recorder on the edge of the table where it would be as unobtrusive as possible, “do you guys come to this mall a lot?”

“It’s the only place to go,” the blonde named Becky said. She was only fifteen but she was an alpha dog. Probably had those boobs for a year or two already, Lauren thought.

“Everyone comes here pretty much.” That embellishment came from Sonia, who was tall and gawky, probably an athlete like Lauren herself had been before work took over. Her voice carried the faint wisp of an accent, Eastern Europe maybe. Bet she hardly remembers, Lauren thought.

It’s the only place to go. Everyone comes here. So defensive. Careful not to condescend, she reminded herself.

“Do you like it?” she asked. “Or do you wish there was something else?”

“It’s a mall,” Becky said.

“It’s all right,” Sonia said.

The others nodded. Except for Gwen who was still just watching, thinking her thoughts. Or maybe just zoning out. It was hard to tell.

Lauren had told Mitch she couldn’t take it anymore. Send her to do the Ukrainian election. Let her taste test the Whopper in Uttar Pradesh. Anything but another group of teenage girls at the Paramus Mall. Hell, she’d take teenage guys any day of the week. At least when you ask them what they’re looking for in a body spray, they know what they think. And even if they don’t know what they think, they’ll give you a strong opinion anyway. Girls like flowery shit, right? So make it smell like flowers. Nah, bro, too faggy, it’s gotta smell like tires or logs, shit like that. Hey, whatever gets me laid, right bro?

But girls? They seemed to be scared not just to express their opinions but to have opinions in the first place. Had she ever been so blank, so unformed? No, not her. Not Miss Debate Club. Not Miss Student Council President, Miss Young Democrat. Did they even have girls like her in Paramus? They must. But girls like her don’t hang out at the mall, and they don’t have time for focus groups.

Girls like her wake up at 4:30 for crew practice, and stay up till midnight studying for the AP French exam. They go to Ivy League schools and lose their virginity at twenty to an adjunct professor of anthropology. They quit rowing crew because they’re not good enough to make varsity and because it’s time to get serious and focus on jumpstarting a career anyway. Once they get the career, they put in fourteen-hour days, so the boyfriends never last, and inevitably they end up sleeping with their boss. And so when they tell their boss no way, no more Paramus mallrats, you’d think they’d have a certain amount of sway. But it never works out that way because he just grins that little twelve-year-old grin and says she’s a rock star, she’s the mallrat whisperer, and who else is he supposed to send? Frank? The insurance company wouldn’t let Frank anywhere near a bunch of teenage girls, not with that mustache. No, the client wants her. The client always wants the girls like her.

Lauren pressed on. “What do you guys do when you’re here? Do you shop?”

She turned her gaze away from Becky and Sonia and leveled it on the chubby one in the tight denim cut-offs. It was always the chubby ones who wore those cut-offs.

“Sometimes,” she said.

“Do you shop more here or online?”

“Here, I guess.”

Lauren could tell that she still did most of her shopping at Walmart with her folks. No shame in that, and no reason to press it. She appreciated the Marc Jacobs in her closet mostly because she knew how hard she’d worked for it. Nothing bugged her more than walking by a younger, better-dressed woman sitting at an outdoor café in the middle of the day, while she fished her BlackBerry out of a Starbucks cup. But that was Manhattan for you.

“We mostly come here for the guys,” Becky said, and, on cue, the others displayed the usual range of reactions: some giggled, a couple blushed, one nodded knowingly. Gwen the Willful Outsider did nothing at all.

Now they were getting to the meat of the matter. A teenager’s response to advertising, Lauren had found, has everything to do with how she thinks of herself. And at that age, how she thinks of herself has everything to do with how others think of her, or more precisely, how she thinks others think of her. Especially boys.

But you don’t get the gold by probing a girl’s self-image, at least not directly. Instead, you empower her, let her do the judging, and see what comes up.

So she asked, “And what’re you looking for when you’re looking at guys?”

“I want to see if anyone’s tall enough for me,” Sonia said. “Most of the guys in school aren’t.”

Lauren could relate to that. Mitch only came up to her chin, even when he did that weird thing with his hair. He thought he made up for it by being funny and taking her rock climbing, but it hadn’t stopped being awkward for her.

So she already knew Sonia was self-conscious about her height, probably more self-conscious than the chubby one—Lauren had forgotten her name—was about her chubbiness, which was more common. That was useful information. Not that skin cream could make her feel less tall. But Lauren could recommend that the next ad campaign include at least one ravishing beanpole whose life had been transformed by the product. That was something.

“I like guys with muscles,” the chubby girl said, again right out of the chubby girl hymnal.

Marcie—she of the retainer, charm necklace, and freckles—was straining to arch her pale eyebrows as high as humanly possible so Lauren would know she was holding back something juicy.

“I look at their bags,” she said, glancing around to catch the reaction of her peers. “If it’s Apple or J.Crew or whatever, I know they have money, maybe a car. If it’s Sears . . .” She rolled her eyes like a silent film star.

Got to be in the drama club, Lauren thought. Marcie’s claim was patently untrue, of course. Lauren doubted that many of the boys who frequented the mall would be caught dead with any shopping bag at all. The few who did show off their love of shopping—well, that was an indication of something other than money. In any case, these girls surely knew the majority of their male counterparts already from school and years of prowling. The notion that they sized up their anonymous prey based on external indicators was borderline ridiculous.

The problem, Lauren knew, was the way she’d worded the question: what’re you looking for when you’re looking at guys? It was laziness really, a shortcut. Because, while the answers weren’t necessarily true on any meaningful level, she could sure as hell use them. In fact, she was already fitting Marcie’s response into the presentation she’d give next week. “Status symbols are very important to the girls we interviewed. The right logo on a shopping bag holds great social power and even a kind of sexual attraction. While the struggling economy has curbed this attitude in adult women, it is stronger than ever in our target demographic. Expanding brand identity to include a sense of luxury or cache should be one of the key goals for the coming year . . .”

The truth was she was bored out of her fucking mind. Which explained why she did what she did next.

“And what about you, Gwen?” she asked the silent, big-eyed weirdo. “What do you look for when you’re looking at guys?”

Gwen didn’t hesitate.

“I check if they have a hard-on I can see through their jeans. I want to know if they’re as turned on by the mall as I am.”

Ah. Lauren looked at Gwen, and Gwen blinked back at her. She’d be pretty, Lauren thought, with the right make-up and clothes that weren’t hanging off her. So what was her deal anyway? Was she angry at the world? She didn’t seem angry. Was she so much smarter than everyone else it made her feel superior? Maybe. Lauren knew people like that, although she herself had never considered herself smarter than anyone, even as she was racking up the cum laudes and phi beta kappas. She just worked harder. And that didn’t make her feel superior either. Sometimes—like when she walked by the outdoor café girls or when Mitch told her to stand in for him at the meeting because his squash game was running long—it made her feel like a sucker.

“Don’t listen to her,” Becky the Alpha Dog said. “God, Gwen, so tacky.”

Lauren looked back and forth between the two and realized that Becky and Gwen were sisters. Same upturned nose, same soft chin. She should’ve picked up on it sooner.

“What?” Gwen said in a near monotone. “I can’t help it if the sight of all this merchandise excites me.”

Becky sighed like only a teenage girl can sigh, noisily, almost musically.

“She never even comes here,” she said.

“So why’d you come today?” Lauren asked. She knew the question wasn’t going to lead anywhere productive, but she was genuinely curious for a change.

“She made me bring her,” Becky answered for her. “When she heard what I was doing, what this was, she got all interested.”

Marcie was working her eyebrows again. “So I guess we know what really turns her on.”

“That’s right, Marcie,” Gwen said. “I’m totally gay for this stranger. I wanted to lez out since middle school, but I’ve been waiting for someone to buy me wings first.”

Marcie wrinkled up her nose. “You said it, not me.” She looked around for reinforcement, but her friends didn’t seem interested in pushing the conversation any further down this path.

Lauren’s sense of professionalism normally would’ve taken over at this point; she would’ve gently but firmly guided the session back into its predictable rut. But something in Gwen was egging her on. The girl was a type just like the others: the very model of the disaffected misfit. But maybe not. Maybe there was more to her than that. Maybe lurking somewhere behind the blank, anime eyes was the holy grail of Lauren’s profession: an original insight. Maybe she was just desperate for a challenge.

“You’re interested in focus groups?” Lauren asked her.

Gwen cocked her head slightly as if taking her measure. “I’m interested in all forms of mind control.”

“Do you think I’m trying to control your minds?”

Lauren told herself she still had the situation in hand. She could use this exchange to make a point about how savvy today’s teen was. In fact, she could be mapping uncharted territory, giving the client brand new data on what their target demo did and didn’t know about market research and the techniques of advertisers. But there was no question she was taking a step off solid ground. She could feel her armpits getting slightly clammy.

“You think you’re so smart, Gwen,” Becky chimed in. “But how could she be controlling our minds when all she’s doing is asking us what we think about things?”

A valid question. Of course, clients often came to her company to confirm the wisdom of some expensive decision they’d already made, and anytime Mitch suggested to her that Client X would be more receptive to a particular result, she could easily conjure that result by asking the right questions in the right way. As it happened, this was not one of those cases, but still. Like most people, young blonde Becky would probably never know exactly how it all worked. She’d just keep buying the pore cleanser made with tropical extracts because it reminded her of the beach. Gwen was another story.

But Gwen didn’t bother challenging her sister. She just shrugged as the waitress returned with their drinks.

Marcie stared at her iced tea and stuck out her chin. “I asked for ice on the side,” she said sotto voce after the waitress had turned her back.

“Did you guys know that in Mexico people don’t put ice in their drinks?” Lauren asked. Stop now, she thought.

“It’s true,” Allie said. She was the most beautiful of the bunch, with long, kinky brown hair and delicate, regal features. But she was flat-chested and wearing overalls, which made her seem like the youngest, even though, at sixteen, she was older than Becky and Marcie.

“I went to Mexico with my cousins, and everything we had to drink was warm,” she said.

“Right,” Lauren said. “That’s bad for the fast food places. Know why?”

She wanted to kick her own shin under the table. What was she doing? Getting dangerously close to giving away proprietary information, that was what. And to what end? There was no way she could convince herself that telling this story would lead to any usable data.

“They have to put more soda in every cup,” Gwen said. She’d waited until it was clear no one else was going to answer. “It costs them money.”

“Exactly.” Was she trying to impress Gwen? Scarily enough, it seemed plausible. “So one of the fast food companies hired me to figure out how to get people in Mexico to ask for ice in their drinks. I talked to a bunch of people just like I’m talking to you guys now. And you know what we found out?”

“What?” Becky, Sonia, and Allie all asked at the same time. Gwen didn’t join in, but Lauren could tell by the way she was leaning on her elbows she was intrigued. Lauren was starting to have fun.

“That people will order it if you put it on the menu. If you call it McIce . . .” Shit. “For example,” she added hastily, “people will see it and they’ll want it.”

There was silence like she’d just pulled off a magic trick. The sweat was trickling down her sides now. Lighten up, she told herself, they’re just kids. She smiled.

Gwen’s expression was unchanged. “So you’re saying people don’t know what they want unless you tell them.”

“I tell the company,” Lauren said.

Becky was staring at the ice cubes in her Diet Sprite. “Oh my god, you guys. It is mind control.”

So maybe Becky wouldn’t be a lifelong innocent after all. Lauren had to admit there was an illicit thrill in pulling back the curtain. Most of the people she met in Manhattan knew all about the kind of work she did, or at least they thought they knew. In any case, her stories didn’t impress them. They always wanted to know if she worked for Obama or Bloomberg, and they always seemed disappointed when she told them politics wasn’t her specialty. On the other end of the spectrum were her parents; they listened politely enough but she could tell they found the idea of her going from town to town asking people personal questions distasteful. Where they came from (which is to say Cincinnati), it was called prying. No one seemed to get that she was kind of a big deal, that rising to vice president by the age of thirty was basically unheard of, especially for a woman. Sure, Mitch called her a rock star, but he became a partner at twenty-five. He wasn’t wowed by her; he was encouraging her, handling her.

Who knew these past eight years that Paramus mallrats were the audience she’d been looking for? Then again, she hadn’t gotten a rise out of Gwen. The food had arrived, and the Willful Outsider was now wrapping one of her chicken wings deliberately in her napkin. Lauren watched as she unrolled the napkin and returned the wing to her plate, then stared at the stain left by the hot sauce.

“You made your own Rorschach test,” Lauren said.

Gwen looked up at her and, for the first time, smiled slightly. “So how much does mind control pay, anyway?”

Lauren paused and looked at the faces of the girls. They seemed less guarded now. They were all looking back at her rather than stealing glances, making faces, whispering in each other’s ear. That’s because one of them is asking the questions now. You made yourself the subject. Her gaze wandered over to the mini-recorder sitting by her elbow. Should she shut it off? She dismissed the thought as soon as it crossed her mind. Were the details of her life proprietary information now, too?

She took a sip of water. “It pays pretty well.”

“Better than that, I bet,” Marcie said. “Your haircut looks expensive.”

It was. Her hair was lank and didn’t submit easily to styling, but she was sick of always pulling it back. It made her feel like she was all business all the time. So, thinking of the café girls, she’d asked for bangs. To her, the results were striking, so much so, that she felt like she was wearing a wig at first. But as it turned out, no one had noticed or thought enough of the change to comment. She was embarrassed by how much Marcie’s observation pleased her.

“And check out her shoes,” Becky said. “They’re hot, too.”

The girls all ducked their heads under the table, except for Gwen, of course, and Sonia who was too tall to manage it. Lauren looked at Gwen; she thought about rolling her eyes but decided Gwen was unlikely to respond to a conspiratorial gesture.

“So you’re rich,” Gwen said, while the others were cooing around their knees.

Lauren shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

She was richer than her parents, a mechanic and a teacher’s aide. Was she richer than these girls’ parents? If she’d actually been doing her job, she’d have a rough idea already. That Gwen was throwing around the word “rich,” basing her appraisal on a haircut and a pair of shoes, suggested that money might be an issue in her house. Then again, she could be using the word ironically. Now that Lauren thought of it, she probably was.

“I’m richer than some people, not as rich as others,” she said.

The other girls had resurfaced. “Do you have to work super hard?” the chubby one asked.

“Yes,” Lauren said without hesitation.

“This doesn’t seem so hard,” Marcie said, “talking to people at the mall all day.”

“This is only one part of what I do. After this, I have to go back to the office.”

“Are you going to report back on what we said?” Allie asked.

She tried to picture Mitch’s face after she handed him a summary of findings from this group, the way he’d shift his jaw from side to side and pinch the bridge of his nose as he tried to work out what she was thinking. If it was a joke, he’d want to say, “This is funny, but you know what would’ve been really funny?” If it was some new breakthrough in market research: “I see what you’re trying to do. A couple more drafts and we might really have something.” And if it was just a bunch of meandering yip-yap? “Is this your way of saying you want me to take you on vacation?” But he wouldn’t know for sure, and the not knowing would show on his face, and that, Lauren thought, would almost be worth the otherwise pointless work.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m supposed to.”

“Did Gwen ruin everything like she always does?” Becky asked.

The chubby one interrupted, unsatisfied with the answer to her previous question. “How late do you have to work every night?”

“It depends. There are groups like this going on in other places, Denver, San Jose. I usually wait for the data to come in from the west coast. So, I don’t know, nine-thirty, ten?”

Lauren could tell right away what she’d said had stunned the girls. Becky’s mouth was actually hanging open. Even Gwen’s eyes got a little wider. She had to admit, when you said it out loud, it didn’t sound too good.

Marcie put on her best pitying face, like Lauren had admitted to being a streetwalker. “How can you even have a life like that?”

How? Take classes instead of lunch. In the past year, she’d tried pottery, bird watching, tai chi, even butchery, which the Times had picked as the year’s hot new hobby. Of course, she ended up missing more sessions than she made, and she never had time for the “homework” the instructors all thought it clever to assign, failing to consider that not everyone works three hours a day like they do. After work? Well, there was a bar she liked—close to the office in case she got called back—with Ms. Pac-Man and trivia on Wednesdays. And sometimes there was Mitch.

On cue, Sonia asked, “How do you have time for guys?”

“Yeah,” Becky said. “Do you even have a boyfriend?”

“I have a boyfriend.” Lauren hoped she didn’t sound as defensive to the girls as she did to herself. Was it even accurate to call Mitch her boyfriend? They’d been doing whatever it was they did for almost a year now, and she’d never met any of his friends. It was possible that, like her, he didn’t have a lot of time for friends, but then, he had to be playing squash with someone, right? In any case, he wasn’t the only one keeping their situation under wraps. She hadn’t mentioned him to her parents, had she? Where they came from, a young woman sleeping with her boss was . . . well, she could imagine.

Accurate or not, the revelation that she had a boyfriend popped the cork on a rush of questions: “What’s his name?” “Do you live together?” “Is he rich, too?” “What’s he look like?” The last one seemed like the easiest to answer. She scooped her BlackBerry out of her purse and called up her one and only picture of Mitch. It was the office Christmas party, and he was holding an oversized snifter of what was probably brandy in his upturned hand, one woolly eyebrow cocked in a sub-ironic leer. He was trying to look louche, like Roger Moore-era Bond, and the whole thing was so ridiculous that Lauren found it endearing and hung onto the picture in contradiction of her usual instinct, which was not to get sentimental about him.

She handed the phone to Becky who passed it around. The looks on their faces told her they didn’t find it as endearing as she did.

“He’s your boyfriend?”

“He’s old!”

Only eight years older than her, but he was almost completely gray, so he looked older.

“Why is he looking at you like that?”

“His tie is ugly!”

It’s a power tie, she wanted to say. It’s ugliness—and the sense that the wearer is too important to care how ugly it is—gives it its power. But really, she’d always thought the tie was ugly, too, and didn’t feel like defending it.

Now Sonia was eyeing the screen. “He’s kind of . . . short.” She looked up at Lauren and winced. “No offense.”

“Whatever,” Becky said. “She’s way too hot for him.”

Her BlackBerry had passed into Gwen’s hands, and she seemed to be scrolling through the other pictures. Marcie was looking over her shoulder.

She pointed at the screen. “Who’s that?”

Gwen turned her wrist so they could all see the new picture: it was Devin, a guy she knew from trivia night. Lauren had teamed up with him a few times. In fact, the occasion for the photo was their one shared victory. Devin was hoisting the tiny plastic trophy and flashing a set of big white teeth. They never talked much, except to confer over their answers, and Lauren didn’t know much about him except that he was a carpenter who built window displays for the big stores in Soho. He had a lot of friends in the theater, so sometimes he did sets for plays, but more for fun than money. In the picture, he was wearing a denim work shirt that screamed manual labor the way Mitch’s power tie screamed corporate douche baggery.

“He’s cute,” the chubby one said.

Sonia nodded. “Nice smile.”

“Why isn’t he your boyfriend?” Becky asked.

Lauren didn’t know how to answer the question. The guy was undeniably good-looking, though his curly blonde mop was starting to recede. He was fun to play with, too; Lauren was always quietly pleased when they ended up on the same team. Was he smart? On this particular point, she had plenty of data, and the results were mixed. If the answer to a trivia question was Pinochet or the photoelectric effect, he probably didn’t know it. If it was The Buzzcocks or Night of the Hunter, no hesitation.

The truth was, she’d never given much thought to dating him, and she wasn’t sure why. The easy answer was that she was with Mitch, but somehow that didn’t seem like explanation enough. She wanted to tell the girls Devin just wasn’t her type, but what was her type anyway? Was Mitch her type? If so, what did that say about her? Why did she feel the need to explain herself to these mallrats anyway?

Lauren knew of only one way to extract clarity from confusion. She thought, I’ll ask the questions, thank you very much.

“Why do you think I should date this guy and not the other guy?”

Becky looked at her like she was a dimwit. “We told you, he’s cuter.”

“Okay, but why else?”

For a moment, Lauren could hear the roar of the mall around them. The group had actually stopped to think about it.

“The way he’s looking at you?” Ellie said. It came out tentative, a question.

“How is he looking at me?”

“Like you make him happy.”

That’s just because we won the contest, Lauren thought. Keep digging.

“What about the way other the guy is looking at me?”

The group huddled around her BlackBerry so they could take a closer look.

“It’s like everything’s a big joke to him,” Marcie said.

“He’s trying too hard,” Sonia said.

Becky was twisting her straw around her finger, the effort of thought showing. “The guy with the trophy just seems more natural or something.”

Lauren was starting to feel sorry for Mitch. She would’ve liked to dismiss the girls’ feedback. After all, he was just making a silly face for the camera. But she knew they were onto something. Keep digging.

“What do you mean when you say ‘more natural’?”

Becky sighed so hard her shoulders rose and fell. Maybe she wasn’t used to being pushed. Or maybe she thought the question was so obtuse it couldn’t pass without a comment, albeit unspoken, of its own.

“I don’t know. Natural. Like laid-back, confident.”

The chubby one was still frowning at the photo of Mitch.

“Some guys just always feel like they have to make something happen, you know?”

The rest of the group didn’t respond one way or another, but a zing went up Lauren’s antenna.

“What do you mean by that?”

“I don’t know. Like, someone’s taking a picture so they have to do something. You meet them at a party and they can’t just talk to you. They have to put on an act. It gets old, you know?”

There it was: an original insight. The chubby one—Kate, her name was Kate—she’d put her finger on Mitch’s problem. He’d made partner at twenty-five precisely because he could never just let things happen. He always made them happen. Always. He’d made their relationship happen on the plane back from a triumphant meeting in Vegas. On the plane! That’s how intent he was on commanding her attention, on forcing the issue.

Lauren imagined what Mitch would do if she invited him to trivia night: first, he’d argue about the rules; then he’d turn the team into his team, using them as a sounding board. “Most people would probably say the answer is Rio. But I was just in São Paulo for a conference. Trust me, it’s São Paulo.” She tried to picture Devin’s face observing this scenario, but she stopped herself before it came to her. She didn’t want to think about it.

Kate got up from the table. She was blushing something fierce.

“God, I was just trying to answer the question!”

Lauren realized she must have zoned out for a moment. “Your answer was great,” she said, but it was too late. Karen had stormed off towards the bathrooms.

“Don’t worry,” Becky said. “She thinks we think she’s a big slut because she’s always hooking up with guys at parties. But we totally don’t.”

“I do,” Marcie said.

It was time to call it a day, Lauren knew, before a waste of billable hours turned into something nastier. But she had one more question, and it was nagging at her, demanding to be asked.

“So you all think the second guy is better?”

The girls all nodded or said yes, except for Gwen, who was still fiddling with Lauren’s BlackBerry.

“So then why do you think I’m with the other one?”

Again, the group seemed to be at a loss. It was Marcie who broke the silence.

“He must be rich.”

“No,” Becky said. “She’s rich already, right?”

“She probably started dating him before she met the other guy,” Sonia said.

Becky shook her head. “So what? She could dump him. She should dump him.”

Allie looked at her friends and then at Lauren. There was confusion in her face, a childish confusion that made Lauren sad. “I don’t understand. How are we supposed to know why you’re with him? We don’t even know you.”

Lauren reached to pull her hair back. All of a sudden, she felt extremely tired. She needed to get back to the office. She wanted the girls to find Kate and tell her they didn’t think she was a slut. Out of a sense of obligation, she asked if they were up for dessert, and they all said no. Maybe they sensed the shift in her mood. Or maybe none of them wanted to become the chubby one.

She settled the bill and thanked them for their time. As one—almost—they sprang to their feet like the final bell had rung. Marcie, to her surprise, was the one who said thank you for lunch and waved goodbye as the group merged into the slipstream of expertly designed logos and carefully selected pop. Gwen hung back to return Lauren’s BlackBerry.

She was staring at her again, or maybe just making eye contact. It was hard to tell. Lauren wondered how different she’d be now if she’d gone through life looking so unearthly. Would she have been student council president? Probably not. And if she hadn’t been student council president, would she have gotten into the same college? Would she be working for Mitch?

“So I guess even you don’t know what you want unless someone tells you,” Gwen said.

Lauren tried to stare back at her, through those vertigo-inducing eyes and out the other side, but she realized quickly she didn’t have it in her and looked away.

“I put my e-mail in your phone,” Gwen said.

Lauren paused as she was putting the BlackBerry back in her purse. “Why?”

“Well, you know how I said I wanted to be a lesbian?”

Her head jerked up. Oh no . . .

A brief, almost silent laugh came up through Gwen’s nose. “Sorry, sorry.” She covered her mouth with her hand. “Just kidding.”

Lauren felt her face getting hot.

“Don’t freak,” Gwen said, “I was just thinking maybe you could send me your report from today.”

“Really? So you’re sure you don’t want fuck me?”

Lauren didn’t think Gwen could get any paler, but for a moment she did.

“I want to know how to be like you,” she said.

Lauren wasn’t having it. “Which part? The twelve-hour work days? The creepy little boyfriend?”

Gwen crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s teenage bullshit. You get paid to mess with people’s heads all day. You’re a badass.”

Lauren inspected Gwen’s face for signs of insincerity, couldn’t find any. The anger drained out of her as fast as it had come, leaving her even more exhausted.

“Sorry,” she said, “but I don’t know how I got to be me.”

“Send me the report,” Gwen said, “and I’ll write you back with questions.” She looked down at her feet, her arms still folded. “If that’s cool.”

Lauren hadn’t been sure if she would bother trying to salvage anything from the session, but now she had a reason.

“All right,” she said.

“Cool,” Gwen said and smiled, wide enough this time for Lauren to catch a glimpse of purple orthodontic rubber. Nothing unearthly about that, she thought.

The car service met her at the Macy’s entrance. She gave the driver directions to the office and then almost immediately dozed off. She didn’t dream exactly, but images spooled and unspooled behind her eyes: Gwen, of course, pale, staring, but also Devin, smiling beside their plastic trophy, and for some reason, the walnut tree outside her parents’ house inCincinnati. There was a time she used to lie under it all summer, but she couldn’t remember when.

She came to on the other side of the river. Jersey was disappearing in the dusk. She checked her BlackBerry; there was a message from Mitch, but she didn’t read it. She told the driver she’d changed her mind about her destination. She’d write her report in the morning. Now she just had to tell the man where she wanted to go.